Careers and Continuities: The German Federal Ministry and its Third Reich Past

In 2005, then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer established an independent commission of historians to investigate the history of the Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt) during the Nazi era and the early postwar period – the first minister to do so. The commission’s findings were published in 2010, and “Das Amt und die Vergangenheit. Deutsche Diplomaten im Dritten Reich und in der Bundesrepublik” (The Foreign Office and the Past: German Diplomats in the Third Reich and the Federal Republic) was widely discussed and became something like a bestseller. Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the Federal Minster of Justice, has now taken a similar step and established a commission to research her ministry’s Third Reich past.  

Alexandra Kemmerer reports, at, on the project: Careers and Continuities: The German Federal Ministry of Justice and its Past (see here for the German version). She discusses the evolving research programme and the task that the Commission faces.

As a student in Passau, I was fortunate that a faculty of young professors did address the dark spots of German legal history. One of the most memorable events in law school was a joint seminar with historian Peter Steinbach, the academic director of the German Resistance Memorial Centre, on the judiciary in the Third Reich.

But if I look at the recent debate in legal journals between prominent law professors emeriti Rüthers (who spoke at the ministry’s symposium) on the one hand and Canaris on the other hand, about the eminent civil law professor Karl Larenz, Canaris’ mentor, and his stellar “career”, which took off post 1933 and the “continuity” of both career and thinking post 1945, it appear to me that many blind spots in our recent legal history remain until this very day – in academia, in the judiciary and in the ministry.


The Rüthers/Canaris debate made it into the general press and was discussed in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (see Der Fremde als Gast im Zivilrecht; FAZ, April 11, 2012 – paywalled). Canaris’ controversial article on Larenz which started the debate can be found here. The respective contributions in Juristenzeitung (JZ) are Rüthers, Personenbilder und Geschichtsbilder – Wege zur Geschichtsumschreibung?  JZ 2011, 593 et seq. and Canaris’ rebuttal in JZ 2011, 879 et seq.


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